Empty Pushchair, Tin-Pan Baby.

FullSizeRenderThe saddest thing I’ve ever seen was a woman pushing an empty pushchair. She could well have just dropped the child off somewhere, be collecting them, have even just been to get the buggy fixed. She hadn’t though. I saw her eyes. They were glazed, empty as the hollow seat trundling in front.

Years before, lounging in a dirty pedalo drinking dirty cheap cider on a beach littered with the debris of the day, a friend I’ve since lost touch with and I saw a similar strangeness. In the small, endless hours of the dark morning, a murmuring made its way along the promenade. Giddy on the late hour and the sour liquid, we found the whole picture innocently amusing as a haggard man in his forties formed from the dense shade, cradling an infant in a sling on his chest and whispering sweet somethings. He walked by without seeing us. He carried on and so did we, less concerned by the lone man at night than we would be in years to come, more concerned with our lie bought freedom and the seaweed on our shoes.

That changed as he walked back the same way, maybe an hour later. With dawn approaching and the angle changed, we saw what our inattention and the light had obscured: it wasn’t a baby he cradled, but pots and pans. Large and small, rusted and gleaming, a selection had been arranged in the dirty, unkempt sling to give the vague appearance of an infant. The charade was weak but had worked for a time on us, and still captivated him. He was entranced by the creation, pointing out distant specks of light on the horizon in trips and falls as he stumbled along, the odd clang of the kitchenware occasionally striking him with a blow of reality.

In our sheltered little lives of 10pm curfew or hidden sneakiness in woods, of parent chaperoning until fifteen and a kind, well-meaning school in a kind and rural county, we thought that everyone was as the adults we were used to. At that time I didn’t know of the abusive parents of my peers, of adulterous adults and the fact that most of my teachers probably wished they were doing something, sometimes anything else. Everything, even when it seemed bad, was golden.

Seeing that man walking alone with his tin-pan baby in the witching hour struck at that time, a distant chord. What I didn’t realise then was that that note, the sort that ought to be played at a funeral, exaggerated by the ache and depth of tombstones and the dry eyes of onlookers, would carry on. It slowly built to crescendo and triggered something in me. After seeing that man, I started seeing the sadness in people.

Sure that man was haggard but he wasn’t poorly dressed, and the sheer expanse of utensils in his sling suggested a kitchen and perhaps – a stretch, agreed – even a penchant for cooking. If that was the case, surely he had, or had at some point, a job? If he had a job, then that meant that he spoke to people in woken hours, that he functioned in the conventional way, that a veneer of normality could smother his naked departures from reality. This man had to have gone to school at some point. He had to have watched football at some point, whether he liked it or not, had to have eaten in restaurants, pretended to like movies he didn’t, bitten his fingernails too short and regretted it, woken late and made up an excuse no one believed. He had to have been normal.

It wasn’t the night. I did consider it. There’s a great line in an Arctic Monkeys’ track which croons “the nights are mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day”. I thought maybe that explained it. Conversations with a tin-pan baby would be tricky to explain in the cold truth of day. It was the empty pushchair which snuffed this though. She didn’t hide in the dark, but walked like a martyr down a heaving high street, shuffling along with her pain and solitude brazen as a sword through the chest. Watching her, I slowed to a spectator’s stroll as she made her sombre way through irritated and irritating school children, mumbling to herself just as tin-pan man did. Occasionally she’d stop for a moment, look down at the pram and smile. She saw the emptiness, and she smiled. With that, with knowing that the man on the beach had heard the clanging of pans and carried on regardless, I could see that they knew that what they were doing was a falsehood. Not a falsehood maybe, but a fairytale. Somewhere along the way, life had chewed them up and spat them out. Somewhere along the way, a decision had been made to spurn truth for joy, reality for a dream, to swathe the pain in layers of fantasy the colour of the life they thought they’d have.

I don’t know these people. I don’t think that I know anyone like them. But maybe that’s the point. These people, these people who had these items which they used, as a sculptor does to create a newness from the detritus, could be anyone. Someone like me even, seeing this, writing about it, and likely getting it all wrong. I’m making something up from maybe twenty second encounters. What if I just kept going one day? One small thing, one huge thing, could tip anyone over the side of the tightrope of normality. I might go too. The people walked on by, and the teenagers giggled, confident in their newness. In the pedalo, I finished my cider.

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Bloodied feet, big thoughts.

FullSizeRenderNot too long ago on my walk home from work, a girl strolled in front of me, brushing around the corner by the graffiti drenched phone-box. There was nothing of any particular interest about her. She wore blue jeans, a large coat, and was swaddled away from the screeching of a moped by her large headphones. There was nothing of particular interest about her, other than that she was wearing sandals.

“Are minor sartorial faux-pas really worth the characters you’re typing with (initially the ink I wrote with, but mediums change), I hear you side-mouth my way. Agreed, it seems a daft thing to notice. It wasn’t even that they were bad, they were perfectly fine sandals. It was that it was cold. I looked at her from beneath my two jumpers, two shirts, one scarf and one coat with my hands plunged into the disappointing warmth of the pockets. I considered her through the mist of my own breath and saw that her heels were worn down, blistered and scabbed, their visceral mauve to mud colour contrasting with the white sandals like a child’s grazed knees peeping from beneath a summer dress.

So that was it. Normal service had been eschewed for cold toes and slightly salved heels. Even though I’d found the answer to my inconsequential question, I felt confused and naked before the strange pseudo-epiphany that followed. Looking at the scabs on the cold feet on that January street, I somehow saw that time and events and thinking and pain and walking and meeting and life had gone into that need for chilly toes. Some series of events, which I would never know, had gone into the abandonment of appropriate footwear and led to her stepping out in front of me and me then writing all of this. As I walked behind this woman who probably (based on the headphone-centric obliviousness) didn’t even know that I was looking at her, much less re-considering the way I thought about every stranger, I (not for the first time) felt completely overwhelmed by how unfathomably huge the world is, how full of individual meaning and potential for interpretation every item, every brick is.

They (whoever the eponymous “They” may be) say that “everyone has their own Paris, and each is individual”. They say this, but how can that be when there is only one Paris? What they mean, surely, is that that city with its solid bricks, its ancient gargoyles, amber-lit avenues and swarming cafés was built from notions and ideas, and that it’s in those that it exists most fully. I could walk down the same street at the same time as someone else, and where I might miss the chips in the masonry on a veranda or the way that the sweep of a roof reminds them of their Grandma’s summerhouse, I’m instead absorbed in a blackbird fruitlessly pecking at the cherry blossom in the park opposite. We’re in the same place, but taking entirely different things from it. It’s a different film from the same set, each scene informed by the last, some shot through a haze, some in monochrome, others in bright, burning, overwhelming technicolour.

And if this is true, if the actual geography and intricacies of a street don’t matter, if directions and a sense of place only make sense from one point of origin  – ever taken a turn where you normally don’t and felt off balance and a little nauseous? – if a dress can be gold to some and blue to others, then that woman’s cold toes and sore heels are the consequence of an entire, unknowable world. By that logic, there are six billion worlds and counting, all coexisting, all paradoxical, all unknowable. Where I heard the birds that day and felt snug in my socks, she lingered among melodies and discomfort just a few steps ahead of me. As many thoughts as I have had today in my brilliant, terrifying,  cavernous brain, so had she, so had the father holding his daughter’s hand as they crossed the street, so had the driver who shouted them as they walked across for what seemed to me (but not to him) no reason at all.

The girl with the cold, bloodied feet heard none of this and walked away, oblivious and full.